Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) competes with her lifelong enemy (voiced by Gemma Chan) in the rich, magnificently crafted Disney film. Hide DISNEY caption
Much is and should be made from the backdrop of the splendidly crafted Disney film Raya and the Last Dragon: A fantasy world that comes from a variety of Southeast Asian cultures.
For a company that has played so many stories in the same generic European fairy tale realm since 1937 (most recently in Tangled 2010), this is yet another part of a long overdue move to make the world on screen look more like the world outside of it . It’s a noble goal and an unalloyed good thing – but of course it’s good for Disney’s bottom line too. Children long to see themselves on screen. More representation of different cultures means that more children can more directly enjoy the thrill that white children have taken for granted for decades. Nationally and globally, this means more enthusiastic bums in (real or virtual) places.
Additionally, the specific setting of Raya – a country divided into five nations – may allow for some degree of specificity in terms of discreet Southeast Asian cultural touchstones. And of course, it’s the specificity that seals the deal. Keenly observed and knowingly used cultural details transform the broad and abstract concept of screen display into vivid, living stories with the power to reach into us and make us feel that our experiences are not simply valid and worthy, but that others have the potential to who may not share these experiences.
But at the end of the day, Disney becomes Disney. This is a company with a long history that incorporates different cultures into its Cuisinart narrative, whether Maori and Polynesians (Moana) or Swedish, Nordic, Danish and Icelandic (Frozen) or … basically all of Europe (Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Tangled). The key difference, of course, is that European and Scandinavian culture mashups are close to the ground, while depictions of Southeast Asian culture (s) in American media are few and far apart. So it’s daunting, if not exactly surprising, to see some less than enthusiastic Reactions from critics Of Southeast Asian descent, from the movie’s broad salad bar approach to the five nations depicted (a bit of muay thai here, a Vietnamese floating market there, some Indonesian architecture there, etc) to the fact that much of it consists of the main voice from East Asian actors. Disney needs to improve on this, and those who know they come from within provide them with a solid, actionable path forward.
Here’s something that Raya and the Last Dragon clearly get right, however: the Disney princess as the flawed hero.
Pop Quiz, Hotshot: What Was Cinderella’s Distinguishing Characteristic? Belle? Ariels? Rapunzels?
Your “I want more than that” longing and determination, you say? Not correct. This is an opening song, a policy statement, not a personality.
Here’s the answer: they didn’t have personalities. No inner life. No contradicting impulses. And that – in addition to their body frames with esophagus and hipbones and eyes so big they could have been creatures evolved to life in benthic caves – makes them appear so flat, monotonous, and passive.
Expressed wonderfully and with skillfully nuanced emotions by Kelly Marie Tran, Raya is technically a Disney princess: she is the daughter of Chief Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim) in a land called Heart. But she is much more than that – on the one hand, she is a warrior (the numerous battle scenes in the film are excitingly choreographed). And it’s something else, something that wasn’t a Disney princess before her: it’s complicated.
In particular, she has trust issues. Size. Which makes sense, as it was a sudden but inevitable betrayal that sparked the glorified search quest that defines the plot of the film.
If you don’t pay close attention during Raya’s opening monologue, you will be missing quite a lot. Here’s the gist: the land was once whole and good and populated with (dragons?) Lots of dragons, but then a purple cloud monsters came and turned almost all of them to stone. The last remaining dragon named Sisu released a great power from a spherical gem that banished the purple baddies, but she disappeared in the process. As a result, humans split into five warring, mutually suspicious nations named after different parts of a dragon – talon, muzzle, spine, tail, and heart. Five hundred years later, an attempt at peace talks results in the dragon gem being shattered into five pieces. Raya and her adorable Pillbug buddy / mountain tuk-tuk set out to find Sisu and retrieve the five shards, reuniting the land and people.
By that height difference, you may be able to tell that the basic mechanics of Raya’s plot includes your standard fantasy epic starter kit. Where the film comes to life brilliantly is in the details: the breathtaking landscapes, the bustling cities, the vocal performance of Awkwafina as Sisu, the funny posts of a certain bad toddler (no spoilers, but trust me) and the friendship between Sisu and Raya who serves the action, even if the breathing space is allowed to exist in and of itself.
But back to Raya’s trust issues: the film just as cleverly justifies her in her reality as in her psychology – the fact is that her cautious, suspicious nature is ideally suited to the dark, fallen world around her, and that Sisu’s sunny, upbeat attitude also fits bad results leads to results again and again. A smaller, more linear movie would find a quicker way of realizing Raya’s ultimate finding of good in other people, but the script keeps shifting it, exploring what applies to nuances in an animated Disney movie.
It is her flawed nature that makes Raya the most compelling, personable, and complex Disney princess in the company’s long history – and what makes Raya and the Last Dragon the best Disney cartoon in many years.